JACKSON TWP. It was a night that felt much different than the dramatic, action-packed weeks that led to Jackson’s second Division I boys basketball state championship.
After a season of packed gyms, rabid crowds and dramatic wins, the Polar Bears, their families, friends and fans gathered in the school’s main gym for a championship celebration that was all about family and honoring the title run.
“Come down here and tell your kid that you love them,” head coach Tim Debevec said. “We don’t say that enough.”
That was the veteran coach’s invitation for parents to come down and join the team in a massive huddle on the floor as the state championship banner was unveiled on the wall at the far end of the gym. Parents, siblings and other relatives huddled at midcourt, had a “1,2,3, family” chant and turned to see the banner uncovered.
It was a night with a crowd of a few hundred people filling the home stands and hearing from various administrators, including school board member Ken Douglas, superintendent Chris DiLoretto and athletic director Terry Peterson, who pointed to the immense expectations placed on this 2017 version of the Polar Bears.
“Even before the season began, there were some companions to the 2010 state championship team and it even started, before the year and as the season progressed, there were more and more comparisons that were brought forward,” Peterson said. “There were people saying this team couldn’t win the big one.”
Peterson noted that the 2010 title team had two losses, just as this year’s squad did. That 2010 also defeated some of the same opponents on the same floors as this year’s squad and both teams had a pair of Division I recruits leading the way.
One of those recruits, senior forward Kyle Young, signed the jersey of Jayden Wolensky, a Jackson youth player who is one of the hundreds of elementary and middle school students in the district hoping to some day lead Jackson to another title.
The players, clad in yellow state championship t-shirts, got the star treatment for the night, with the lights in the gym dimmed as they were introduced one by one and walked out in the spotlight to the cheers of the home crowd. A long highlight video detailing the entire season was projected onto the bleachers on the far side of the gym and there was one last chant led by the cheerleaders mixed in with the many speeches made on the night.
Debevec was the final voice the crowd heard and the veteran coach made sure that everyone in attendance knew what it had taken to win the title.
“This team was a true team this year,” Debevec said.. “They were unselfish. They worked hard in the offseason. They’re competitors. They loved each other. ... This is a close family.”
The man who led Jackson to its first state title seven years earlier, current Mount Union head coach Mike Fuline, was also a part of the evening. Debevec was an assistant on the 2010 team and has continued some of the program traditions and standards Fuline established when he took over the program in 2005 and built before leaving for Mount Union after the 2011 season.
“I was a nervous wreck,” Fuline said, recalling how he felt when he took over at Jackson. “I started preaching, ‘We’re going to be a basketball family.’ I tried to explain what that would mean.”
On this night, it was clear that those who took the baton from the former head coach and the players who have come along in the years since his departure have grasped that idea and run with it. As parents Allison Pallotta and Michelle Nicolas stood with their sons, junior forward Jaret Pallotta and senior guard Kyle Nicolas, in a mass of yellow-clad humanity at center court and took in the sight of the new, purple state championship banner, a season full of twists, turns, long trips and late nights came to a close in a family gathering to give one final tip of the cap to a 28-2 team that proved it could win the big one.
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